04/15/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

Guns: The Protection Paradox

Criminals can always get guns, though the harder it is, the fewer will actually succeed and some will expose themselves in the process. Obviously, unless everyday citizens can have guns for protection, they will be vulnerable to criminal elements.

Criminals use guns for a wide spectrum of activities. At one end they use them to fight each other in gang wars and enforce discipline, as well as simpler situations, such as a drug deal gone bad. They use them against law enforcement officials, so police are invariably armed. They use them in robberies; some types of businesses and some neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable. But they are also used in individual muggings and carjackings. Guns can help protect against robbers, though victims often face a drawn weapon before they are even aware there is a threat at hand. And they are used in burglaries and home invasions. In this situation, guns are obviously useful for protection, and this is reinforced by specific home protection laws in a number of states.

From an individual point of view, it clearly is attractive to own guns for self protection. But a central problem is the fact that many people injured by guns are not injured by criminals but by other legal gun owners. In some cases it is simply due to accidents or carelessness: a small child shooting somebody, a stray bullet, or an accidental discharge. The protection afforded by guns is also illusory to some extent. There was a recent controversy in Colorado when a state legislator told a college rape victim that even if she were armed the night of her attack, odds are she would not have stopped her rapist. Although the statistics cited were faulty, the incident provoked a lot of discussion on the extent to which guns actually provide protection.

Herein lies the central paradox: the more people that own guns for self protection, the more shootings there will be. In addition to accidents, normal, everyday people occasionally lose control of themselves; some are more hot-headed than others, or more depressed, or have more suppressed rage. So domestic problems, or friction at work or school, or a dispute with a neighbor, or racial slurs, or road rage can lead to violence. Certainly the situation is worsened if fueled by alcohol or drugs, or by some one's gradual decline into despondency. And when a gun owner is driven to violence, it can easily involve shooting. There is all the more concern in an economic situation where more people are under more stress.

The typical gun buyer considers himself, or herself, perfectly stable, but is concerned about the other buyers. Background checks try to weed out the most obvious cases of concern, but the central problem remains: both the person buying a gun and other buyers can be perfectly normal today. Well, maybe not quite perfectly. Some only seem normal. Others might harbor thoughts of "taking care" of some one "threatening" them. All are subject to the risks that some one else will take control of their gun. Some percent of those that legitimately buy guns for protection will eventually use them for destruction. One study, for example, reported in Southern Medical Journal in 2010, found that a gun is 12 times more likely to result in the death of a household member or guest than in the death of an intruder. Another study in 1993 found that gun ownership creates nearly a threefold risk of a homicide in the owner’s household.

And that is the Protection Paradox: owning a gun can indeed provide personal protection and can make sense for individuals, but does not make sense for society as a whole. And even for many individuals, the benefits of protection may be overshadowed by the risks their own gun ownership creates. The widespread ownership of protective weapons increases the risks for everyone. There is no answer to this paradox, no solution to the challenge it poses, no clear route to the situation in many other countries where low levels of gun ownership naturally translate into low levels of shootings. More stringent checks can help, but inevitably will provoke much vocal dissent. In the longer run, a more widespread awareness of the low level of actual protection that guns provide coupled with risks involved could lead to lower ownership levels, especially if people are basically comfortable with their economic situations, but for the foreseeable future, the Protection Paradox will continue to confound society.